I've been intrigued about Zoroastrianism for a long time and I think it's fair to say that one aspect of this fascinating religion that excites the most morbid interest for many people is the way in which Zoroastrians dispose of their dead. Since fire is sacred and earth should not be contaminated by the dead, bodies are laid out to be stripped by vultures in what are known as Towers of Silence. Once the birds have picked the bones clean, the bodies were historically interred in rock tombs. Now I think you'll admit that's pretty fascinating.
One of my very favourite authors, the Canadian-Indian writer Rohinton Mistry, writes about Indian and ex-patriot Parsees (the Indian form of Zoroastrianism). Consequently I had read a lot about the Towers of Silence and the disposal of the dead though most typically in the city of Mumbai. Morbid reports are often made in Mumbai suggesting that the vultures in the city sometimes drop limbs on the balconies of the posh areas of the city near the Towers after stopping for a snack. I’m not convinced it’s true but it’s the kind of myth that make you want to know more.
Zoroastrians account for about 10% of the local population in Yazd – the highest level in the Iran. Like the city itself, they were left to their own devices for a long time and escaped the persecution of other groups. I was very excited at the prospect of visiting the Towers because in my imagination, I had always supposed that they would be tall elegant buildings like the towers of Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I was – as is often the case – completely wrong. The towers are actually two brown earth and rock mounds, shaped like conical hills. They are completely bare of any vegetation and rise up against a flat desert background. The towers have not been used since the 1960s when the city's Muslim rulers decreed that having bodies left around to be eaten isn't exactly 'hygienic' so today the dead of the Zoroastrian community in Yazd are buried in concrete lined graves in the small graveyard near the Towers.
We parked the bus and headed off to explore. At the base of the towers were a covered well and few buildings for the family of the dead to prepare and wash the body and to stay during the mourning period. There were a couple of ‘badgirs’ or wind-towers to keep everything cool. We passed these buildings and headed towards the towers and started with a climb of the smaller of the two towers which was for the male bodies. For some of the group it was a bit of a slog but the views from the top were worth the effort – you could see for tens of miles across the desert with the mountains behind. Inside the round walls at the top of the male Tower we found a circular hollow where the bodies were laid out for the birds and the priest would have performed the rituals for the dead. The bodies would always have been laid out on stones so that they didn't directly touch the earth and contaminate it. They would be placed in a sitting position and the priest who oversaw the process would watch to see which of the bodies' two eyes were plucked out first - apparently it's good luck if the right eye goes before the left.
The ladies Tower was even taller and a few of the group decided to give it a miss. It was a hard walk to the top – especially when decked out in the local clothing - and when we reached the top it took a scramble to climb up through a hole in the wall to get inside. Of course we had our photos taken lying in the pits. In retrospect, perhaps that was a little disrespectful though after a climb like that it was nice to rest for a while.
Moving at a fair pace, you'd need at least an hour to get up and down both towers and have a good look around, take lots of photos and drink in the atmosphere of the place. If you aren't so steady on your feet or struggle with climbs, it's still worth a visit just to understand the reality of Zoroastrian 'funerals'.
After we headed down the women's Tower, we walked over to the cemetEry and came across the guardian of the site - an elderly gentleman with a very pretty donkey who we were told always appears to have his photo taken and collect a few donations to help with the upkeep of the immaculate site.
Whilst the Towers were completely different from how I'd imagined they would be, they were every bit as fascinating as I'd expected.